Scott Littlefield MS, CN, CISSN
While many health professionals have finally moved away from good-food/bad-food philosophies and discourage food-demonization, these concepts still unwittingly line sub-text as professionals speak to and educate athletes. Just because foods aren’t directly labeled unhealthy or bad, doesn’t mean those labels aren’t implied.
Foods cannot and should not be generally labeled as healthy or healthier, either. The healthfulness of a food is not inherent to the food itself – it depends on the interaction between the food and the person. Is broccoli healthy for an athlete right before an intense workout? Is a salad or quinoa a healthier choice than a cookie for an athlete who is struggling to consume sufficient energy? Or an orange vs. orange juice? Is abruptly increasing leafy green consumption a healthy choice for the athletes with thrombophilia disorders?
What's wrong with regular pancakes? Regular pancakes aren’t healthy? Healthy pancakes are better? If I eat regular pancakes, I’m not making a good choice for my health? There are countless instances where regular pancakes might be the better choice for many individuals: consider accessibility, preference, prior and concomitant intake, and nutrient needs. But, now a confusing message and the potential for unnecessary food guilt has been introduced.
When you convey to a group that this food is healthy or healthier, you imply that other foods are not healthy or are less healthy… that’s still overly simplistic good-food/bad-food mantra (and likely not true for a portion of individuals within that group). The positive or negative impact of a food on athlete health and performance is contextual – dependent on goals, needs, total intake, prior intake, timing, etc. Athletes must understand this truth in order to develop knowledge and positive relationships with food and make beneficial decisions.
When you say healthy or healthier, you are (consciously or unconsciously) thinking of a specific situation. Which situation? Why is it healthier in this situation? Going deeper enables you to upgrade your message.
Food can be nutrient-dense or energy-dense. It can be easily digestible or not. It can be a good source of protein. These kinds of labels make sense because they describe characteristics of the food and empower athletes to make choices to meet their individual needs at any given time. Energy-dense may be a healthy choice for an athlete struggling with breakfast or RED-S; less-processed may be a healthy choice for an athlete away from training or trying to cut fat mass. Whether a food is healthy for one athlete or another, for an athlete at a specific time of day or based on prior intake, or for the same athlete when their goals have shifted a few months down the road is completely variable. Move away from healthy and towards terms that empower athletes to make better decisions based on their own individual goals.
Fuelogics provides a flexible-control, servings-based system for athletes to make performance-, health-, and life-powering choices as well as a platform for nutrition professionals to deliver education in creative ways.
But, wait! There’s more…
Is this food healthy? It depends. It always depends. Discuss why based on the food and the athlete's unique goals. Especially in group settings. Model the thinking necessary to determine if the food is healthy. Athletes must learn self-efficacy and decision-making skills – how and when and to what extent they can incorporate all foods to meet their goals. Otherwise you train them to listen to random authority figures (sometimes you, sometimes online bloggers, social media influencers, friends and family, misinformed coaches, etc.) to tell them what is healthy – what they should or shouldn’t eat – figures who don’t understand their individual needs and goals, challenges and focuses, preferences and priorities. And then they’re gobbling down vegetables pre-game or avoiding carbohydrate or binging at night on “unhealthy” food or are just utterly confused and disenchanted with nutrition… all in the name of eating healthy.
Scott Littlefield MS, CN, CISSN
Scott co-owns a private practice - ViTL Nutrition - where he works one-on-one with athletes as well as with programs from high school to professional levels across the country. He is a founding member of Fuelogics. These days you'll likely find him testing the boundaries of strength, size, and the mile-run or the limits of human taco consumption.